When Ramin Hakimi got the application, he threw it right into the trash can.
Looking back, it’s understandable that the owner of the Minneapolisbased shop would ditch the environment grant opportunity—how would he possibly know how to fill this thing out? What did Hakimi know about reducing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) pollution with his paint? About calculating emission reductions? And how would he provide the measurements and hard, scientific data necessary to prove a brand new paint booth would benefit the surrounding environment?
Bill Droessler says that’s where the disconnect lies: Governmental agencies are more concerned with establishing environmental standards and regulations than educating small business owners on how to achieve them.
Shop owners need to know the bottom line: How will this benefit me? How will this improve production and efficiency and workflow? And, ultimately, how can this grant help me make more money?
Luckily, there are programs like the Environmental Initiative. Droessler, the program’s senior director of strategic project planning, says the nonprofit organization helps Minnesota businesses obtain the kind of grants that eventually funded two-thirds of Hakimi’s brand-new $150,000 Global Finishing Solutions (GFS) paint booth.
The Initiative works with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Collision Repair Campaign—a national effort to reduce hazardous air pollutants, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter emissions. Hakimi’s collaboration proves small shops can find help locally, and that working with local environmental groups can not only save money and increase shop efficiency, but drive new business to your shop as well.
On July 4, 1977, Hakimi’s father, Oscar, left Iran for the U.S., fueled by a passion for the automotive industry. At 38, Oscar opened Oscar Auto Body, despite having no staff nor clients and knowing very little English.
What Oscar did have, however, was a rock-solid foundation through his son, who spoke English and helped his father run the business at 13 years old. In 1990, Hakimi took over Oscar Auto Body, which is in its 35th year of business and generated roughly $860,000 in revenue in 2014 with six employees in an 6,500-square-foot building, performing both collision and mechanical work.
While business has been steady for years, Hakimi knew the shop needed an improved paint booth for his new waterborne paint system to increase production. He tried modifying his 30-year-old booth, but not enough air was moving through the system for the paint to dry properly during the humid summer months, increasing cycle times and creating bottlenecks.
With a focus on improving shop numbers, Hakimi never realized that a new paint system could benefit the environmentally focused neighborhood surrounding the business.
The shop rests along the city’s Midtown Greenway, a 5.5-mile bike trail that connects with other trails all along the Mississippi River. In 1995, the Midtown Greenway Coalition was established to improve environmental conditions in the city. Their accomplishments include establishing a new light rail system instead of a busway, removing railroad tracks to make room for bike-friendly trails, and advocating for a turf-track streetcar system connecting local light rail routes.
So while Hakimi concentrated on running a business, Minneapolis was focused on developing citywide environmentally friendly practices. And from that effort stemmed the Environmental Initiative.
Established in 1992, Droessler says the goal of the Environmental Initiative established a public-private partnership with the EPA. To this day, the group performs the administrative and scientific work necessary for small businesses to meet environmental regulations.
“In this project and with others through these programs, we help with coordination among all the participants and funders, outreach, and business recruitment,” he says.
When the EPA launched the Collision Repair Campaign eight years ago, it established 10 regions throughout the country that collectively work toward a succinct set of goals for body shops, including encouraging safer paints and solvents, reducing toxic exposures by 90 percent, and slashing VOC emissions by 3.5 million pounds annually.
Of those 10 regions, Region V belongs to the Autobody Refinishers Emission Reduction Project, a program set up through the Environmental Initiative to carry out the EPA’s lofty goals on a statewide level in Minnesota.
To bridge that disconnect Droessler says exists between government and small businesses, the Environmental Initiative collaborates with the University of Minnesota Technical Assistance Program, the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and the EPA to coordinate a network of professionals that aid small business owners in obtaining government grants.
“The key is to show quantifiable outcomes,” Droessler says. “You can connect organizations and government and businesses by showing them the facts: We can reduce VOCs by this much, save you this much money, and get this many people involved.”
While the Environmental Initiative works with any small business, its special EPA-backed sub-project focuses on reducing VOC emissions at collision repair shops like Oscar Auto Body, which happened to be in need of updating its rundown paint booth when the Initiative was searching for a shop to showcase in 2014.
So, back to that application: “I didn’t believe there was going to be money given out for me to buy this booth,” Hakimi says. “So I threw it away.”
With no support in the front office and a busy workload (Hakimi acts as solo estimator, owner and general manager for the shop), he simply had no time to perform the work necessary for the application, which required a data-filled explanation as to how a new GFS paint booth would reduce VOC emissions.
Fortunately, the Environmental Initiative saw the appeal of Oscar Auto Body’s proximity to the Greenway—a staple of Minneapolis’ green mindset— and knew his story could inspire other local business owners. Thus, senior environmental project associate Bjorn Olson approached Hakimi at a PPG class with the application once again.
“When you tell somebody to ‘go green,’ what does that mean?” Olson asks. “Where do they start? What do they do? What does that mean for their business? What are their options?
“What’s great about working with so many different partners is we have all the angles to really walk somebody through. You get that one-on-one time. Every shop is going to be different, so you can’t just apply the same formula to everybody. You have to go in there, talk to them, and find out what their priorities are.”
Hakimi’s newly hired office manager, Joni Ballweber, spent an entire night working with Olson on applications for two separate grants— and this is where the Environmental Initiative became crucial.
The Initiative partnered with the University of Minnesota to determine the measurements of the shop, where the paint booth should be placed in relation to the mixing room, and exactly how a new booth would reduce VOC emissions by 75 percent over the first year.
But in addition to this data collection, the Environmental Initiative united two grants promoting VOC reductions: a $20,000 grant through the City of Minneapolis Green Business Matching Grant Program and several grants totaling $500,000 through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The Initiative worked with leaders in both programs to leverage the grants together for one combined payout.
In total, Hakimi was able to secure $101,000 in funding in March between the two grants, which he put toward the $150,000 paint booth. Hakimi says his new waterborne paint now dries quicker: Cars now spend an average of 1.5 hours in the paint department as opposed to the former average of three hours. In addition, it was constructed near his new mixing room to improve workflow, and the booth itself is three feet longer.
“Three feet may not sound like much, but being able to fit a bumper, a hood and a fender, plus the car, in one spray is a huge time saver,” he says.
The quantifiable outcomes that Droessler says are crucial for the EPA’s collection of data are in as well: VOC emissions have been reduced from 68–73 percent (depending on production) in the first eight months, eliminating a total of 569–736 lbs. of VOCs per year.
With efficiency in the paint booth increasing and cycle times and VOCs down, Hakimi also immediately saw increased foot traffic after receiving both the Minneapolis Green Business Award and the Whittier Alliance Good Business Award.
“We got a bunch of phone calls saying, ‘I heard about you guys through this and I want to come in,” Ballweber adds. “We had one guy who just dropped his car off and called us later. It’s amazing the trust people place in a business from an award.”
Overall, you can’t argue with the results: The shop is poised to surpass $900,000 for a record year in 2015, with sights set even higher in 2016.
“Now I can hire more techs, which means I’ll be able to get more cars ready and double my production,” Hakimi says. “I’m not using it at its potential yet. But the potential is there.”
Hakimi is now is giving back the only way he knows how: joining the Environmental Initiative’s evergrowing network of likeminded leaders trying to unite small businesses for the same cause.
Hakimi attended a Clean Air Minnesota event this past summer and served as an ambassador for the statewide program that awarded the grants.
“I feel good about sharing my story because this is now a reality for me,” he says. “I feel good about the changes we’ve made. It makes me more willing to want to put this out there so others will take action.”